What is it that so intrigues us about worlds of myth and fiction? Since at least as far back as antiquity, people have been drawn to imaginary lands, from the island of Atlantis to Lilliput to Westeros. And every year, countless authors are creating more and more fictional worlds, from the fantastical to the mundane. Readers and viewers gleefully jump into these new worlds, returning again and again. Why do we do this?
Umberto Eco, in “The Book of Legendary Lands”, seeks to answer this question as he gives an illustrated tour of history’s most interesting lands of fiction and legend. He looks at places inspired by scripture, bizarre locations from science fiction, and utopias dreamt up by idealist philosophers. The book is chock full of colorful maps of these places.
If the thought of flipping through these pages of maps gets your heart racing, then you may be a nerd, but so am I, so it’s okay. Eco is one of us. He offers this explanation for why we are so intrigued by these fictional worlds:
The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.
Maria Popova at the site brainpickings.org has put together a splendid summary of the book as well, with more quotations and several examples of the maps from inside. I have included a few of my favorites below. For more information, you can also find the book on Amazon. I may pick it up myself.